Historical fiction often gets a bad rap, as lazy, ill researched, misleading and quite frankly trashy. Some of it is all these things — but some is not.
When I first came across Philippa Gregory via her best-known novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, I thought it was in the first category. Rubbish (sexy and readable rubbish, but rubbish nonetheless).
Reading The Women of the Cousins’ War, my opinion changed. In an introductory essay, Gregory discusses her novel-writing process — exhaustively researching the available facts about historical figures, then speculating about their ‘emotions, motives and unconscious desires’ — and asserts that historians, too, have to ‘make things up’. She writes:
History is a created narrative which tells a story stepping from one agreed fact to another, with gulfs of unknown between each step, bridged only by speculation and imagination.
The rest of the book comprises three biographical essays (one by each of the authors), examining the lives of three little-known but key female players in ‘the cousins’ war’, now better known as the Wars of the Roses. The three women are Jacquetta of Luxembourg (sister-in-law to Henry VI and mother of Elizabeth Woodville), Elizabeth Woodville (wife of Edward IV and mother of the ‘princes in the tower’) and Margaret Beaufort (mother of Henry VII).
These women are the protagonists of Gregory’s recent Cousins’ War series: The White Queen (2009) about Elizabeth Woodville, The Red Queen (2010) about Margaret Beaufort and The Lady of the Rivers (2011) about Jacquetta of Luxembourg.
In that series, Gregory used fiction to reclaim the three women from the centuries-long accretion of stereotype: Elizabeth Woodville as scheming and greedy; Margaret Beaufort as a saint; and Jacquetta of Luxembourg as a suspect witch. The Women of the Cousins’ War furthers this goal, laying bare what is known about each woman (which is not much), considering how (male) historians have described their characters and attributed their motivations, and proposing that quite different interpretations are possible.
For example, generations of historians have remembered Margaret Beaufort as the pious founder of the Tudor line. Little has been said of her evident ambition for her son (and herself), her political and business savvy, her treasonous plotting against Richard III. Writers of history, Gregory points out, have been so uncomfortable with powerful women that they have either played down their abilities, or depicted them as de-feminised, as unnaturally masculine — the fate of powerful women from Margaret of Anjou to Margaret Thatcher.
Readers who haven’t read Gregory’s trilogy should enjoy these essays, but they offer particular pleasures to those (like me) who’ve devoured the fiction. There are many ‘aha!’ moments when the source of a plot point or detail is made clear. For example, in The Lady of the Rivers Jacquetta (whose reputation as a witch Gregory has recast as psychic ability) flinches at the sight of a ghostly black dog trailing Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester. The non-fiction account reveals the legend that Cobham’s ghost, in the shape of a black dog, was said to haunt Peel Castle where she died, herself imprisoned due to accusations of witchcraft.
This is a highly readable and handsome book, illustrated with portraits and source materials including family trees. Despite the latter, the essays still confuse at times — so many Edwards and Margarets, so many dukedoms and earldoms shifting from one person to the next as the fathers, sons, cousins and their followers died in the battles and dirty skirmishes of the wars. Bloody times to live through — but fascinating to read about.